Orcas of the Salish Sea
he black dorsal fin slices up slowly with barely a ripple. First it rises about a foot above the surface. Like a submarine's periscope, it travels straight ahead for twenty feet until the mighty stroke of the adult male's flukes lift six feet of dripping, wavy fin into the air. A huge torpedo-shaped head pushes out just far enough for a loud burst of air out the blowhole and a quick suck to refill the orca's lungs before it arcs silently back into the depths.
It's J3, a male over 40 years old, rising to breathe beside his family. His mother's sister plows up next to him to heave an explosive blow, followed by three more generations of J pod orcas, all closely related and inseparable their entire lives. J3's age is documented from photos taken in the first years of demographic field research in the mid-1970's. Several females are much older, however, including two, J2 and K7, both estimated to be over 90 years old.
Wispy clouds of vapor linger high over their heads as they pass a hundred yards from the lighthouse at Whale Watch Park. One of them suddenly twists in tight circles pursuing a large salmon. The others dive into the kelp, rubbing the long soft strands along their backs and into the notches of their flukes as they check for salmon hiding in the shadows. Above them the snow-whitened Olympics stand watch over this vast inland sea, glowing with red-orange hues in the early morning sun.
The orca, or killer whale, is a wondrous and impressive creature by any
measure. For millions of years there has not been a predator in the sea that can
touch Orcinus orca, the largest member of the dolphin family. And yet, there is no recorded case of a free-ranging orca ever harming a human. Even when orca mothers are violently pushed away with sharp poles so their young can be wrestled into nets and loaded onto trucks, they have never attacked a human
being. When seen in movies like Free Willy, or doing tricks at marine parks, it is easy to see that they often show extreme responsiveness, even affection
toward humans. Having little else to do in captive situations, they often initiate playful interactions and engage in mind games with their keepers.
When encountered in their natural marine environment, however, their behavior is much different, much less interested in human affairs. Though always mindful of boats large and small, they tend to simply continue traveling, foraging or socializing with one another, as though thoroughly engaged in the complex
social life of their families. Occasionally, however, some may pass surprisingly close to a boat as if to inspect the passengers as they glide with masterful ease through these vast estuaries.
The Southern Resident Orca Community
Dr. Michael Bigg, who pioneered field research on orcas in the early 1970's, designated the orcas found in southern BC and Washington the "Southern resident community," to distinguish them from the 200+ members of a separate orca community found in northern BC waters. From April through September, the three Southern resident pods, known as J, K and L pods, usually travel throughout the inland waters of Puget Sound, the Northwest Straits and Georgia Strait in British Columbia. To simplify describing their habitat, this 300-mile long inland waterway is increasingly known as the Salish Sea.
From October through June, K and L pods tend to disappear to parts unknown, while J pod often continues its activities in the inland estuaries. During winter months Salish Sea orcas are seen along the outer coasts of Washington and Vancouver Island. but recently the Orca Network Sightings Network has revealed that K and L pods are also often found in lower Puget Sound during winter. Orcas usually swim from 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours, but it is not known how far offshore into the Pacific Ocean they may travel. They continually provide surprises to scientists. On January 29, 2000, approximately 50 members of K and L pods were spotted in Monterey Bay, California, feeding on salmon.
The Salish Sea orca community is an extended family comprised in late 2006 of just 86 members. Traveling in multi-generational pod groupings centered around females, they appear to be led by elder matriarchs. The twelve adult males, almost forty adult females and about forty juveniles under 12 years old are all capable of swimming at speeds of 30 mph. Each individual has been identified with a specific alphanumeric designation, such as J1. After each newborn has survived its first year they are also given more familiar-sounding names, such as "Luna" or "Samish." When Southern resident pods join together after a separation of a few days or a few months, they often engage in "greeting" behavior. Ritualized formations of each pod face one another for several minutes, then gradually merge into active groups, each consisting of members of all three pods, accompanied by intense underwater vocalizations and spectacular "play" behavior.
Until field studies began over 30 years ago, very little was known about the lifestyles or abilities of these powerful and elusive animals. As a species, orcas have the widest global range of any mammal except humans and may be seen in all types of marine ecosystems, but their highly varied communities, unpredictable movements, and the fact that they spend about 95% of their time under water have made them difficult to study. Today, however, thanks to the dedication of whale researchers a picture is beginning to form of the highly refined physical adaptations and social sophistication of this remarkable
species. Because each animal has unique fin shapes, markings and color patterns, they can be individually identified by sight or photograph and thus the movements and behavior of each member and group can be studied over long periods of time. As a result, we now understand a little more about the long-term relationships that characterize their families and societies, and about their extraordinary abilities.
When studies began in the 1970's researchers in the field often found groups of orcas made up of a few adult males, clearly identified by their tall dorsal fins, accompanied by four or five apparent females with much smaller dorsal fins. It was generally assumed, based on studies of other marine mammal species such as sea lions, that the males aggressively assemble a harem of females, and that sooner or later someone would see the males battle each other or the females for dominance or mating rights. A few years of close observation went by and yet aggressive behavior never occurred. Instead, some of the whales assumed to be females grew tall dorsal fins and became obvious males, but remained in association with the females and other males. The realization dawned that many of the "females" were actually juvenile males, and that even after they became adults they stayed close beside their mothers. At first there was some understandable reluctance to accept this new view. No other mammal known to science maintains lifetime contact between mothers and offspring of both genders.
That revelation helped resolve another observation—sometimes observers found small groups of unidentified orcas separate from the large pods of known orcas. On rare occasions even solitary males were seen. Early on, it was assumed that these were outcasts, or the losers of battles for dominance. Once it was understood that there were no outcasts from the resident pods, it was determined that these small groups were actually members of a totally separate kind of orca, dubbed "transients," with radically different lifestyles. Whereas residents specialize exclusively on eating fish, especially Chinook salmon, transients hunt only marine mammals for their sustenance. Thus competition for food between the two types of orcas is virtually eliminated. Residents and transients don't mix, nor do they interbreed. Indeed, they are well on the way to becoming separate species even though they inhabit the same waters. This discovery (called sympatric speciation), like lifetime bonding of both male and female offspring with their mothers, is unheard of in the biological sciences.
About 190 transients have been photo-identified so far, any of which may pass through the Salish Sea at any time, but are more commonly seen in the spring and fall. Transient pods are typically comprised of only two to five whales, usually found skulking silently around rocky shores near the haulouts of acoustically aware seals or sea lions. All transient orcas along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico are believed to use similar vocalizations, indicating they are all members of a single, widespread community.
First-born transient males usually stay with their mothers for life, whereas second-born males tend to break off contact with their mothers and either travel with other transients or remain solitary, in order to keep their pod size small enough to stalk wary marine mammals. Juvenile transient females have also been known to leave their mothers, but in at least one case, a female returned to her mother after giving birth to a calf of her own, indicating the family's emotional bonds had not been broken even though mother and daughter were separated by more than a thousand miles for several years.
In the early 1980's, Dr. John Ford formulated the results of ten years of listening in on orca conversations. Ford discovered that each orca community has its own distinct set of characteristic calls. The transients and residents, for instance, speak different "languages." It is believed that every orca community around the oceanic globe uses its own, completely unique, set of calls. Orcas are highly communicative, and the ability to distinguish themselves using the calls of their particular family group is essential to their survival. When maintained in marine parks they retain their native calls for life, even while they learn new calls from fellow captives caught from other communities. To hear Southern Resident orcas as they forage, echolocate, and vocalize, go to the Cetacean Research website.